Bill could help asteroid watch

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science Correspondent   |   Oct. 4, 2002 at 10:35 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 (UPI) -- Legislation that creates financial incentives for amateur astronomers to locate and track large celestial debris capable of striking Earth would be welcomed by professional astronomers, according to testimony presented on Capitol Hill.

The federal government needs more effective efforts to locate and track potentially dangerous near-Earth objects, said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. Within just the past year, he said, three asteroids showed some possibility of striking Earth.

"We should not take comfort in the fact these asteroids missed us, because in astronomical terms they missed by a hair," Rohrabacher said. "We need to clearly understand the future goals of a national NEO policy in terms of cost, technical know-how and technology to meet the challenge of finding, monitoring and mitigating (these objects)."

One piece of Rohrabacher's agenda, H.R. 5303, the "Pete" Conrad Astronomy Awards Act, passed the House on a voice vote earlier this week. The bill, named for the third man to walk on the moon, would reward amateur sky-watchers who either spot new large NEOs -- as the near-Earth objects are called -- or help track previously identified ones, helping free up more advanced equipment to spot smaller but still-dangerous solar system wanderers.

Although amateurs occasionally spot comets and rarely spot asteroids, encouraging their activities makes sense, said Brian Marsden, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Minor Planet Center. NEO surveys need all the assistance they can get -- the MPC's operations, while highly automated, only have three staff members, Marsden told the subcommittee.

"The part of the Pete Conrad Award ... for follow-up observations should actually be more (encouraging)," Marsden said. "It should also be noted there are better prospects for amateur discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, because of the absence of professional surveys there."

Most NEO discussions cover objects larger than 100 meters (about 325 feet) in diameter and their ability to cause continental or even global catastrophes. The most immediate threat, however, comes from smaller objects impacting the atmosphere and exploding with enough force to resemble nuclear detonations, said Brig. Gen. Pete Worden, vice director of operations at the U.S. Air Force's Space Command.

One such impact occurred over the Mediterranean Sea early this past June, Worden said, when new nuclear powers India and Pakistan were exchanging sporadic gunfire over the disputed Kashmir region. If the blast, one of the largest military sensors have ever seen, had occurred over Southwest Asia, it might have triggered a nuclear exchange before U.S. or other agencies with sophisticated sensors could have announced the true cause, he said.

"There is considerable synergy related to man-made satellites and global security requirements related to NEO impacts," Worden told the subcommittee. "Adding a modest number of people, probably (fewer) than 10, to current early-warning centers and supporting staff within (the complex in Colorado at) Cheyenne Mountain could form the basis of an Natural Impact Warning Clearinghouse."

Although the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is nearing completion of a congressionally mandated survey of all NEOs larger than a kilometer in diameter, official efforts in this area need more support, said subcommittee member Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y.

"For too long we've assumed that the worst asteroid risk would come from Hollywood, in the form of a sequel to flops like "Deep Impact" or "Armageddon," Weiner said. "If we can plow $100 million into a summer flick, we can certainly give NASA the means to make us safer from real-life blockbusters."

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